Okay, so the rundown is as follows: The Rook by Daniel O'Malley may not be a great titanic work of literature, but it is fun. The dialogue is witty, the detail is in overload mode, the creatures are frightening, and it's one of the few books with sentient religious fungus that I can also describe as "a hilarious read". And for a first novel, while it shows the wear and inexperience of its author, it's one hell of a debut.
The bad is a few pacing issues, a tendency to over-info-dump while simultaneously delivering loads of detail, and the fact that there are loose ends to be tied up and the falling action seems to be setting up a sequel.
But all in all, I suggest finding this book, taking possession of it, and clearing space on both your shelves and in your weekend for it, because if nothing else, it's too interesting a ride to pass up.
More, as always, below.
"Because you were so completely sane to begin with. Nothing says normal like invading England on horses with antlers."
The first time I saw Daniel O'Malley's novel The Rook, I was inclined to give it a miss. It seemed too down-pat to be interesting, too by-the-numbers, and the way it was marketed made it look like the kind of thing snapped up by the publishers in an attempt to cash in. Even the blurbs on the back cover made me shy away, as people like Lev Grossman (among other dubious characters) sang its praises and talked about how much it reminded them of things like Ghostbusters and X-Men. The book jacket copy told me of a novel where its heroine had to recover her memories and root out a mole in a secret supernatural organization. All of these things I'd heard before. I'd received the E-book, and even then it didn't appeal. But one day, out of the blue, I decided to give it a shot. I had nothing else on my plate at the time, and while I knew enough to walk away, at the same time, there was something intriguing about it. And I thought I should at least give it a try.
And, well, I'm gonna just say it. The Rook by Daniel O'Malley is the most fun I've had with a book since Nick Harkaway's Angelmaker. It may not tug at the heartstrings, it may not unbalance and mind-screw the way something like The City Trilogy does, and I still have yet to find out if it stands up to repeated readings, but damn is it fun. Why? Well...
The Rook is the story of Myfanwy. Myfanwy wakes up in a park in the rain surrounded by dead bodies wearing latex gloves. She has absolutely no memory of anything. Her mind is a complete blank. But in her pockets, she finds two letters, the first addressed "To You", and the second labeled "2". The letters are written by a woman named Myfanwy Thomas, the previous inhabitant of Myfanwy's body before someone or something erased her memory completely. Myfanwy Thomas (who will be referred to as "Thomas") was apparently told to prepare for some unknown catastrophe where she would lose her memories and identity. She then went into overdrive preparing for this event, preparations of which included writing half a book's worth of letters and an entire purple binder on what she does. She urges Myfanwy to assume her old life and uncover her "killer". Myfanwy, not left with too many options, accepts.
And then things get weird.
Thomas, as it turns out, was the head administrator for a mysterious organization called the Chequy Group. The Chequy Group turns out to be a secret organization tasked with containing supernatural incidents all over England, with a history dating back almost to the founding of the country itself. Each high-ranking member of the Chequy has some kind of power, running the gamut from combat tentacles to complete immortality. Thomas had the power to disrupt connections within people...making them lose control of their legs, causing their facial features to attack them, things like that. Myfanwy assumes her predecessor's position of Rook in the organization (because everyone has a chess motif, naturally), and immediately sets about navigating the treacherous currents of interoffice politics while at the same time learning about the strange, strange world she's been thrust into. Unfortunately, whoever erased Thomas and left Myfanwy in her place will most certainly try to finish the job. And another ancient conspiracy might be attacking. Her investigation into her own life puts Myfanwy in touch with a grotesque array of characters, some more monstrous than others, in an attempt to stop someone from hollowing her out a second time. And even though she has no idea whom she can trust, she will have to put her faith in an equally diverse group of allies to survive.
I suppose the first place to start would be the characters. O'Malley has created an astonishing cast in his book, and, most importantly, all of them are distinct people. It would be easy to just define them by their powers or names or positions, but throughout the book, the reader gets glimpses of these people, their families, their friends, and actually sees something of their lives. Myfanwy herself is an interesting case, where the reader gets to see the things that make her who she is as they're happening, which is a nice touch. It's rare to see amnesia played in such a way that the hero or heroine never recovers any of their memories, and indeed that's the case-- throughout the book, Myfanwy gets no flashes of the past, no glimpses of who she was...she's an entirely new character who develops as the audience watches her. And that would be fine. But we also get the entire Chequy Group, most of whom are incredibly distinct, from the matriarch who watches her agents through their dreams to the commander who seems to have independent control over any part of his body and uses this power to fight by doing things like dislocating his neck. O'Malley pours detail into his characters and sub-characters, and it's easy to tell he loves them as much as he wants the readers to. And it's that detail that helps keep the word populated and interesting.
Which leads me into the second point, Daniel O'Malley does a similar thing to China Mieville. There is definite detail overload here, and in great numbers. Be it the sentient religious-minded fungus that takes over a house in Bath midway through the story, the rather odd explanation of how vampires work in O'Malley's universe (they hatch from eggs), or some of the wilder experiments of the sinister Grafter faction, O'Malley lovingly details each and every one with some kind of sadistic glee. He also has control over economy of detail, which is just as important. While we are told everything about a villain whose description at best is "body horror", at the same time we are denied much of a glimpse of things like the incredibly risque dress that Myfanwy is forced to wear to a dinner welcoming her American counterparts. I could talk all day about the cool things in the book, but I'm not the kind to just list things. And the extra icing on the cake is that where Mieville only paid attention to his world and let everything else kind of stagnate, O'Malley does a great job of keeping all his plates in the air.
And finally, while O'Malley may be playing with familiar tropes here, he re-frames them in a more interesting context. Myfanwy/Rook Thomas isn't a front-line field agent, she isn't anything close to the ass-kickers normal for the genre. She's a bureaucrat. She rose in prominence due to her amazing administrative skills rather than her (still considerable) powers, and as the book starts out, Myfanwy realizes that Rook Thomas was a coward who fainted at the first sign of danger rather than the fighter who took out all the men and women in the park where she woke up. While there is action in the field, a lot of the book is set up as a dark, supernatural workplace comedy and the plot has much more to do with the internal workings and bureaucracy of the Chequy as Myfanwy installs herself as Rook Thomas. She is only allowed into the field about halfway through the book, and even then, she spends most of her time coordinating. It breathes life into what was for a long time a stagnating genre by inverting the focus. In the end, what brings Myfanwy to the climax at all is actually the paper trails and money she had to trace rather than her work dissolving sentient flesh-cubes and curbing the spread of invasive religiously-inclined bacteria. And that's something I want to see more of. You can keep your wild field agents and their weird stories. I want to hear more about blackly comic bureaucracies and people trying to figure out what to call a person with one mind and four bodies of mixed gender.
But there are a few structural flaws. First, O'Malley tends to infodump a lot. And while the infodumps are insightful and interesting, there are a lot of infodumps. I'd like all of these best-selling writers and their books heralded as the Next Big Thing a lot better if someone would just edit their damn exposition. Though I do admit it's a lot better than some others. And second, there's an issue where you can clearly see where the author planned out a sequel to his novel while he concluded the first volume. People, don't do this. Find more loose ends when you write the second book, but don't write book one while fully intending to write book two. No one appreciates your "to be continued" except you, your agent, and the publisher. And since those are not the only people who will be reading your book, it's safe to say you should not be doing this.
But in the end, O'Malley ties up most of the loose ends, and these are minor quibbles because as I mentioned before, this is a fun book. It's amazing for a first novel, it's a great read, and if you weren't watching out for Dan O'Malley before, then you definitely should be now. So head to the bookstore, clear off some shelf space, and make sure your weekend's free. You have a new book to settle into. It's a ride well worth the price of admission.
- Tiger Shrimp Tango by Tim Dorsey
- Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch
- Koko by Peter Straub
- Necrophenia by Robert Rankin
AND MANY MORE